HISTORY TALKING: When rote learning the three Rs was a rite of passage

“Let's take a trip on a memory ship back to the bygone days, sail to the old village schoolhouse, anchor outside the school door. Look in and see you and me, a couple of kids once more” – Will Cobb and Gus Edwards.

WELL BEHAVED: "We sat up straight, we held our pen in the right hand between thumb and forefinger with the end pointing over our right shoulder" - Orange History Group member Keith. Photo: FILE PHOTO

WELL BEHAVED: "We sat up straight, we held our pen in the right hand between thumb and forefinger with the end pointing over our right shoulder" - Orange History Group member Keith. Photo: FILE PHOTO

The 19th century saw the spread of public education in NSW and, coupled with the advances made by rail into rural areas, schools began to open wherever there were enough children to attend.

The first school in Orange, known as the National school, was situated near where the Kmart tyre service shop stands today.

I have a particular interest in this school because my great grandfather was a teacher there in the early 1860s.

And you had to be fairly tough to be a teacher in those days. In 1879 a ‘list of expectations’ was issued by the authorities which firmly made teachers aware of what their duties were … and there were many.

Surprisingly the day began with “filling the lamps and cleaning the chimneys”. The idea of teachers crawling up chimneys before the day’s work began seems a little excessive, until I realised that chimneys probably meant the glass globe of the lamp.

However all was not done because “each teacher is required to bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day's session”.

The scuttle of coal seems obvious in winter but it is interesting to surmise what the bucket of water would be used for. Did the teacher also have to scrub the floors and put out fires or was it for drinking or even dunking the heads of recalcitrant pupils?

Stern instructions were given, not only for behaviour during school hours but apparently a teacher's private life had to be stainless.

“Men may take one evening a week for courting purposes or two evenings a week to attend church and after 10 hours in school you may spend the remaining time reading the bible or other good books.”

As if this was not enough teachers were admonished to “lay aside, from each day, a goodly sum for your benefit during your declining years so that you would not be a burden on society”.

This month the Oral History Group searched its own memories of schooldays where teachers were not quite as burdened as those in 1879.

We are rather reluctantly aware that the average three- or four-year-old child today can type far better than most of us, while their ability to manage their devices leaves us breathless with admiration.

In our youth there was certainly a much greater emphasis on the three Rs and we learned many things by rote, which had the effect of staying in our minds to this present day.

The history of reading instruction is, to some degree, the history of pendulum swings between what was believed to be the correct method at the time.

For many years educators believed reading should not be taught until a child had reached an age of ‘reading readiness’ and that this would not generally be until the age of six.

Teaching of the alphabet and sounds was also discarded by many in favour of whole word recognition.

If today’s reporting can be believed quite a few children are leaving school without the literacy skills to cope with the modern world. The group could not remember anyone being particularly concerned about how we learned or whether we were ready to do so. We just got on with it.

Repeating maths tables was also a morning chore and if you didn't know them by recess you stayed in to learn them or missed your play to learn them again.

Leslye remembered the alphabet chart which hung on the wall of her Moree classroom and the way we all chanted in unison the names of the letters and the sounds they made.

We sat in rows of hard wooden desks, sharing an inkwell with the other occupant and, if a girl with long plaits was unlucky enough to sit in front of you she quite likely had the ends of her hair dyed blue. This was definitely not allowed as Tom discovered when he “got the cuts” after being caught in the act.

We were also very British in those days when, at the morning school assembly, we all stood at attention to sing God Save the King and repeat the oath “I honour my God, I serve my King, I salute the flag” which was very likely to be the Union Jack.

Rob, who came from England in the 1950s, was very impressed by this. “I was very pleased to see it,” he said, “especially as we never did that in England.”

Repeating maths tables was also a morning chore and if you didn't know them by recess you stayed in to learn them or missed your play to learn them again.

This had the effect of imprinting them so firmly into our minds that in later years we didn’t have to use calculators. The teaching of writing was also another drill routine.

“We sat up straight, we held our pen in the right hand between thumb and forefinger with the end pointing over our right shoulder,” explained Keith.

No wonder we turned out beautiful work, as Hazel’s old school writing book demonstrated when she passed it around for our inspection.

We also parsed and analysed sentences in grammar lessons, studied mostly British history and learned long poems by heart.

The teacher was, for the most part, obeyed and any punishment (and it was often with the cane) was generally supported by our parents.

In spite of all this most of us had fond memories of schooldays and all of us left being able to read, write and add up.